Monarch butterflies at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz. Dawn Page / CoastsideSlacking.

Butterfly Effect at Monarch Preserve in Santa Cruz Whips Up Big Smiles, Stiff Necks

If the flapping wings of a single butterfly can alter the weather, imagine the impact of thousands of monarchs fluttering around a small eucalyptus grove. Or visit Santa Cruz and see for your yourself. 

We picked a sunny “top down” day for a visit. The drive south from Montara on Highway 1 in the convertible plus multiple stops on the way home to enjoy scenery and sustenance were at least half the fun – the automotive equivalent of the butterfly effect, perhaps.

Located on the coast at the north end of Santa Cruz, Natural Bridges State Park serves as the winter home for up to 150,000 monarch butterflies that migrate south from the Pacific Northwest and the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. A small canyon, designated as the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve, provides the perfect mix of warmth, wind protection and nourishment to sustain these delicate orange “snow birds” during the cold months. The monarch count last week stood at 10,000, so it’s only going to get better.

The bulk of the wintering monarchs spend their days at the bottom of the canyon, which visitors reach via a stroll down a boardwalk trail to a multi-tiered viewing platform. Finicky little things, the butterflies don’t become active until the temperature reaches 60 degrees and cannot fly below 55 degrees. Check the weather before you visit.

Arriving at 11 a.m., our timing was just about perfect as scores of monarchs cavorted among branches high above our heads in the warm sunshine, yet we could still see dense brown clusters of dormant butterflies, wings closed, in shaded branches.

The clusters look a bit like clumps of dried leaves or wisteria flowers, as one visitor noted, though not as colorful. The wings of individual monarchs fluttering among the branches radiated a preposterously bright orange as the sun shone through against a bright blue sky. It was beautiful.

Viewing is a bit hard on the neck, particularly if you’re The Geek and focusing upward while wielding a 3.2 lb. telephoto lens. She claims hike duration, neck angle and the weather can cause a lens to gain up to 7 pounds during the course of a photo shoot. MontaraManDan doesn’t try to argue but does try to compensate by schlepping the camera bag.

In this instance, the cramp was worth the reward as The Geek managed to capture a closeup of one butterfly that had been tagged to track migratory patterns. Yup, you can tag a butterfly. Who knew?

20171114 - monarch preserve-IMG_1147
Who knew you could tag monarch butterflies? Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz. Dawn Page / CoastsideSlacking.

State parks interpreter Andrea, offered a unique viewing solution for a group of school children that was both easy on the neck but held the attention of 20 6-year-olds for at least 10 minutes. She had her crew of kids lie flat on their backs on the boardwalk and point to a favorite butterfly while she interpreted the scene is elementary-school speak.  Genius. We would have tried viewing from a prone position ourselves but weren’t sure we could get back up. Still, we may borrow this tactic if we bring the grandsons, Thing 1 and Thing 2, down for a visit when they’re a bit older.

20171114 - monarch preserve-IMG_3424
Monarch butterfly viewing at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz. Dan Page / CoastsideSlacking.

When you’re finished gawking and head back up the hill, you may notice a well-worn footpath to the left that offers a continuation of the Monarch Trail. We took the bait but found there wasn’t much to see in the preserve beyond the boardwalk. This is not the Monarch Trail you’re looking for. A better secondary stop is back at the visitor center at the garden of monarch friendly plants, complete with a fresh crop of monarch caterpillars clinging to the foliage. Milk weed anyone?

After completing our monarch mission, we headed north and grabbed lunch at  the Whale City Bakery Bar & Grill in tiny Davenport. (Did you ever notice the drive north along the Coastside is more scenic than the drive south?) Refreshed, we continued north to Año Nuevo State Park, a destination beach for both migrating elephant seals and migrating tourists. It seemed a shame to drive home and step onto a tread mill when a round trip walk from the Año Nuevo visitor center to North Point will tally roughly 10,000 steps.

While it isn’t quite breeding season, when the best elephant seal viewing takes place, we did find about 100 desultory males lounging at on the beach at North Point in addition to sighting turkey vultures, kites, deer and a half dozen surfers. Read our post from last winter on breeding season here.

Chilled because we stayed on the deck of the visitor center to watch the sun set behind the abandoned light keepers house off shore, we made one last stop, at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero, for a hot adult beverage and a slice of pumpkin pie before driving home. Top up.

What a great day in our little slice of Coastside heaven. The butterflies will be at Natural Bridges State Park through January. Don’t miss them!

Monarch Minutia

  • Monarchs feed on nectar from non-native English ivy in the fall and eucalyptus blossoms in the spring. They don’t care whether the plants are native.
  • Males have a black spot on each wing. They are lighter in color and have finer black veins than females.
  • A female will lay up to 400 eggs the size of a pinhead but never more than one per milkweed plant. Caterpillars emerge in 3-6 days.
  • Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed, which contains a poison absorbed by the caterpillar that remains in the butterfly. Most predators become ill after eating a monarch.
  • In addition to various types of milkweed, garden plants that attract butterflies include alyssum, Indian blanket, and pincushion flower.
  • Adult monarchs live two to six weeks except for the generation that does the fall migration, which lives up to eight months.
  • The monarchs that winter in Santa Cruz migrate from the Pacific Northwest and western Rocky Mountains. Monarchs that winter in Mexico migrate primarily from the Midwest.
Source: Natural Bridges State Park

Monarch butterfly at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz. Dawn Page / CoastsideSlacking.


2 thoughts on “Butterfly Effect at Monarch Preserve in Santa Cruz Whips Up Big Smiles, Stiff Necks

    1. We could not read the serial number. We even tried to enhance it. OK if we update blog to note the region it was tagged? We really appreciate the heads up.

Leave a Reply